What happened in 2019?
Quite a lot really.
It all started in Japan. The Mariners beat the Oakland Athletics in the two-game series, then came back stateside to win the series over the Boston Red Sox. They swept the Angels, took the series over the White Sox, and enjoyed a four-game sweep over the Royals.
They homered in each of their first 20 games, tallying an amazing 57 long balls before the end of April, but then came back to earth with a bump. Despite the amazing start, the Mariners dropped to fifth in the division on 18 May and never moved from the bottom spot.
The franchise bid a tearful farewell to two icons: Ichiro Suzuki and Felix Hernandez. They also parted ways with veteran slugger Nelson Cruz, but it was a more jubilant goodbye when Robinson Cano and his $120 million contract left for New York.
Year One of the rebuild was always likely to be tough for fans. Losing the production of Mitch Haniger, their best hitter from 2018 with 139 OPS+, was a big blow. His season finished in early June and involved two words which should never be seen in the same sentence: rupture and testicle.
In August, serial-trader Jerry Dipoto made his 100th deal when he sent minor leaguer Ian Miller to Minnesota. The list of Dipoto’s trades includes some beauties and some head-scratchers, but really it’s hard to find a better one than the Cano and Edwin Diaz to the New York Mets. He timed that one perfectly.
In return, the Mariners received Jarred Kelenic (Seattle’s No.1 prospect), Justin Dunn (No.6) and Gerson Bautista (No.39). And they converted the veterans they got in the deal into Jake Scheiner (No.21), Jesse Biddle and Arodys Vizcaino.
One to watch: Yusei Kikuchi
2019 was a year to remember for the Japanese starting pitcher, and one to forget. He became a father for the first time, he lost his father, he emigrated to the USA and he made his MLB debut.
Kikuchi gave up 36 home runs (the second-highest total in the AL) but immediately started to work with Driveline Baseball as soon as the offseason began.
Watch out for the 28-year-old this season as he becomes more attuned to baseball at the highest level. It will be interesting to see whether we get the beastly 6.66 ERA* that he posted in his final 21 starts or the guy who struck out 217 batters with a 1.97 ERA in 26 starts in Japan in 2017.
Five reasons for optimism in 2020
(1) Jerry Dipoto. If you asked the Mariners’ GM for reasons to be optimistic for 2020, he would still be listing them well into a second hour. The former pitcher is one of the engaging personalities in any front office and instils confidence and belief in his players. Whether he truly believes Mallex Smith will be a stud centre fielder is beside the point, but he convinces everyone, including Smith, that’s the case.
(2) One of the most noticeable aspects of the Seattle rebuild is the speed of the transformation from the oldest roster in MLB to the youngest. Dee Gordon and Kyle Seager are the only 30-something veteran hitters on the roster. They will be lucky to avoid being part of a Dipoto trade-addiction fix this year.
(3) Let the kids play: One of Dipoto’s desires for 2020 is to give the young players time in the majors. So expect to see lots of Evan White at first, Shed Long at second, J.P. Crawford at shortstop and Kyle Lewis in the outfield. There will, of course, be plenty of opportunities for players like for Jake Fraley, Justus Sheffield, Braden Bishop and Justin Dunn. Dan Vogelbach will be given time at DH to shake off his confidence issues and recapture the form that saw him post an OPS above 1.000 for the Mariners first 50 games.
(4) Julio Rodriguez wants to be in the majors this season. It seems unlikely, considering he only turned 19 at the end of December, but it goes to show the self-belief of the outfielder. He raked in High-A with 1.252 OPS and could easily be the top prospect in the game by the end of this season. The potential of a 2021 outfield featuring Rodriguez, Lewis and Kelenic is an enticing prospect.
(5) This is only Year Two of the rebuild, but if Mallex Smith & JP Crawford take a step forward, and the two catchers (Tom Murphy and Austin Nola), can be as valuable with the bat as they are with the glove, the Mariners could be contenders as soon as next season.
* I nicked the phrase beastly 6.66 ERA from Corey Brock of The Athletic
Gavin is one of the growing team of writers at Bat Flips and Nerds. Follow him on Twitter @_tramps